By: Samuel Gelman (Houston)  | 

The Paradox of Ben Shapiro

Like many others, I disagreed with a lot of what Ben Shapiro said during his presentation. I thought he simplified complex issues such as transgenderism and Judaism’s approach to social justice, and that not all of his facts were as factual as he thought. But this article is not an attempt to refute what Ben Shapiro said. In fact, for the sake of this article, I am going to assume that everything Mr. Shapiro said was true. What I will focus on, though, are his closing remarks.

Towards the end of his talk, Mr. Shapiro turned his attention to transgenderism. He started off by mocking the left’s reaction to Caitlyn Jenner, asking whether she was the “gadol hador or gedola hador.” The crowd responded with a hearty laugh and an enthusiastic applause. He then compared supporting people changing genders with telling a schizophrenic that the radio is really talking to him. He said that in the same way one would not embrace that delusion, one should not embrace the transgender delusion either.  

Mr. Shapiro then told an anecdote about his experience with transgenderism. A few years ago, he was invited on CNN to debate whether Caitlyn Jenner deserved an ESPN award for courage. One of the debaters on the show was a transgender woman. The two of them got into a heated argument, climaxing when Mr. Shapiro called her “sir” and she threatened to send him home in an ambulance. Mr. Shapiro said that she should not have been insulted when he called her “sir” because facts don't care about your feelings. That she was a “sir” is the reality, and he is permitted to make that reality clear as long as it is true. More applause.

Mr. Shapiro continued his story, saying that after the debate, a furious Zoey Tur (the transgender woman) approached him and, while imitating her voice, he quoted her saying,  “I’ll meet you in the parking lot.” He then continued by noting that he thought her actions constituted “deeply unladylike behavior.” This was met with even more applause.  After speaking a bit more about fixing our society's social fabric and personal responsibility, Mr. Shapiro concluded with, “if you act like a mensch,  you should be treated like a mensch.”

Now, before I continue, I want to reiterate that we are going to assume that everything Ben Shapiro said was true: transgenderism is in fact a mental illness, Caitlyn Jenner did nothing heroic, and Zoey Tur is actually a man.

It was after his mensch comment that I became extremely frustrated. I knew coming in that I would disagree with Mr. Shapiro, but I also, in a way, admired him. He was a man of principle. I knew that despite everything he said he would be consistent and stand by his ideas. He would not lie to me or himself and would not hold back. Throughout most of his talk he did not disappoint. Yet, his final line of “if you act like a mensch, you should be treated like a mensch” shattered that admiration. Here was a man who claimed that he preached decency, yet completely ignored that very decency when he was speaking about what he considers a mental illness, gender dysphoria.

What do I mean by all of this? Well, look at how he approached Caitlyn Jenner’s gender dysphoria. His remark of “gadol hador or gedola hador" took a person’s mental illness and turned it into a joke. It was as if he said; Haha; she can’t figure out what gender she is. Let’s mock her while throwing in some hebrew language to appeal to my audience. This is like going to a schizophrenic and asking them if it is just the radio or also the TV that is talking to them? This is a person that suffers from a terrible mental disease and he made fun of her suffering in front of over 43,000 people, many of whom were probably not Jewish.

He then proudly told the story about how he humiliated Zoey Tur in front of a national audience by calling her “sir”. While Mr. Shapiro is allowed to disagree with Zoey about transgenderism, that still gives him no right to mock her by calling her “sir”. He could have easily asked “what are your genetics?” instead of “what are your genetics, sir?” Yes, she threatened him afterwards and that is completely wrong, but that still does not put him in the right. Mr. Shapiro claimed that he was stating a fact and that she should not have been insulted by his fact since “facts don’t care about your feelings”. Yet, this is not how we, as a society, function. We wouldn't go around calling fat people “fat” and then expect them not to be insulted because we stated a fact. Facts may not care about your feelings but people are not made up of only facts. Rationality and intellect do not dominate the human experience. We have emotions and feelings and going after those feelings in an argument is both a low blow and disrespectful.

Mr. Shapiro’s approach to the end of the story was just as bad. He mocked and imitated Zoey Tur’s voice in a demeaning and vitriolic way. He could have easily spoken in his normal voice, the voice he used the entire speech, or perhaps, he could have even left this part of the story out. His point about transgenderism was made. But no, he had to continue, and he did so by saying that Zoey tweeted threats to him after the show and that he felt that her behavior was “deeply unladylike.” This was a clear shot at her gender dysphoria, mocking her struggle between her male biology while also identifying as a woman, but failing to act like one. This is a person that is mentally ill according to Mr. Shapiro and he made fun of her for it. His joke implied that Zoey must truly be crazy if she thinks she is a woman while also acting like that. After all, a woman would never stand up for herself and defend her beliefs. That would be crazy. Therefore, she must be a man. Hilarious, right?

This brings us full circle to Mr. Shapiro’s closing words: “if you act like a mensch, you should be treated like a mensch.” From his behavior that night, Mr. Shapiro not only displayed that he is most definitely not a mensch, but that he is also a hypocrite. As Kira Paley stated in her quote to The Forward: “you can’t brag about how you humiliate people on national television and make jokes at their expense while simultaneously describing yourself as a good person.” You can’t preach decency while using others as punching bags for your own agenda, no matter how right you are.

The concept of not embarrassing your fellow man is a fundamental Jewish precept. In Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s article, ‘Friendly’ Halakhah and the ‘Friendly’ Poseq”, he quotes various sources in this regard. For example, Leviticus 19:17 states: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but [you shall] not bear sin because of him.” The Torat Kohanim says that this verse is telling us that while we should rebuke our brethren, we do not do it if we risk severely embarrassing them. Even though there is a biblical commandment to rebuke, if the rebuking causes embarrassment it is forbidden.  

This idea is further demonstrated in Sotah 10B. R. Yohanan says in the name of R. Simeon bar Yohai that “It is better for a man to leap into a fiery furnace rather than publicly humiliate his fellow. How do we know this? From Tamar [of whom it is said ‘when she was brought forth (to be burned) she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “by the man who owns these I am pregnant”’] (Gen. 38:25).” Rashi explains in Bava Mezi`a 59A: “Even though she was being taken out to be burned, she still did not mention Judah by name as the man by whom she was pregnant.” From this story the rabbis derived that (Avot 3:11): “One who... humiliates his friend in public… although he may possess Torah knowledge and good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come.”

From these sources it is clear that the Torah forbids humiliating your fellow man. When Mr. Shapiro, who identifies himself as a Modern Orthodox Jew, completely ignores this idea, he creates a bad image for Modern Orthodoxy and Judaism as a whole. A public figure such as Mr. Shapiro must take this into consideration when speaking about controversial issues. He is allowed to disagree with Zoey and Caitlyn and claim that transgenderism is a mental illness, but he must find a way to do it without embarrassing or disrespecting others.

Which brings me to you, my fellow YU students. I am very happy that Ben Shapiro came to speak to us and commend the College Republicans and all the other clubs that sponsored the event for making it happen. I think it was a great event that will lead to a lot of serious discussion among our student body. But to all those that laughed at Mr. Shapiro’s hateful jokes and don’t see how hurtful they were, think about the damage you have done to our Yeshiva University community. A university is supposed to be a place where everyone feels like they belong. We are supposed to look out for one another. What if there was someone dealing with gender dysphoria at that presentation? Do you think that Ben Shapiro’s jokes and your laughter made them comfortable, like they belonged to a community that would be there for them? How are we supposed to be a light unto the nations if we don’t respect others and speak out when they are mocked and attacked? How can we expect others to defend us when we don’t defend them?

Some of you will dismiss everything I have said, saying that I am a soft liberal who just had my feelings hurt and should toughen up. Others will disagree with me more seriously, and respond with a rational and well thought out argument. And that is fine. I welcome those that have different viewpoints to engage me in conversation. I will argue with you. I may roll my eyes at you. I may even shout at you. But I will never laugh at you.